Chapter One: Tyehn

White flakes swirled in the stiff coastal breeze,  feeling like gentle fingers massaging my skin.

With a smile on my face, I stood in the Kaster city square next to Jalok as the deluge continued. The snow had covered the stones of the square, making it seem like a solid sheet instead of segmented concrete.

“Isn’t this great, Jalok?”

Jalok muttered something incomprehensible and sneezed. He pulled up the collar of his winter coat and huddled within its confines.

Jalok shot me  a dirty look, snow forming on his scalp.

“No, it’s not great. Leave it to a Valorni to think this inhospitable weather is somehow a positive.”

“Bah, come on. Don’t you just love the way it blankets everything with a pristine coat? Like we’re on a planet untouched by sapient incursion.”

Our voices had a muted edge due to the snow absorbing sound.

I found the crisp, fresh snow to be bracing and invigorating. It made everything new, like it was a world that could have a fresh start.

Void knew, Ankou could use one.

My companion, apparently, didn’t enjoy it as much.

“It’s cold, it’s wet, and I think I’m coming down with something, so why don’t you just can the relentless cheer and let me suffer in silence?”

I chuckled at his griping.

“Come on, Jalok, doesn’t your girlfriend live in this city?”

“What’s that got to do with anything, you overgrown oaf?”

“You should think about how much fun  you’re going to have once you’re off duty rather than complaining about the snow, that’s all I’m saying”

His expression softened about one iota, but I figured that the best I was going to get out of the grumpy Skotan.

We stood outside of the government building on the edge of the public square, having finished our recon and awaiting further instructions from our team leader Sk’lar. It was kind of boring, to be honest, but the snow was a wonderful distraction.

“Jalok, did you know that every inch of snow equals ten inches of rain?”

“No, and I don’t give a srell.”

“Well, you should. Think about it.”

“I don’t want to. I just want to get out of this damn cold. The Skotan home world isn’t plagued by this revolting phenomenon you seem so enchanted by.”

“If this were rain and not snow, we’d have had twenty inches by now. The square would be flooded, and it would be even worse.”

“That is a matter of opinion.”

We were not just in Kaster because Jalok’s girlfriend lived there. The anti-alien movement had been building momentum in this area, and Strike Team Three had been reassigned here.

The blanket of fresh snow disguised numerous stains—some of them from blood—on the square due to the recent riots.

It  was hard not to take it personally when a growing contingent humans were out protesting our rights to exist.

They had the right to free speech, of course.

And honestly, I never expected everyone to always get along.

But the more radicalized elements of their movement had taken to acts of sabotage and terrorism, attacking humans as well as aliens.

We could take it, but the humans were more fragile.

Things had been peaceful for a short while, but we all knew that it could boil over again at any time.

Which is why we’d been dispatched here. Without the use of the rifts, we couldn’t always deploy rapidly enough to prevent more violence.

Finally, our comm units crackled, picking up static from the storm, and Sk’lar’s curt voice came over the line.

“Jalok and Tyehn, report.”

“Just finished a circuit of the square, Commander.” I smiled down at Jalok. “Now we’re enjoying the weather.”

Jalok flipped me the bird, a gesture he picked up from the humans, and I chuckled anew. Apparently the middle finger represents a human phallic symbol.

Human men must be tiny.

“Did you see anything amiss?”

“Negative, Commander. The snow is keeping the anti-alienists inside today, it seems.”

“They’re smarter than us.” Jalok was smart enough to keep his grumbling off comms.

Sk’lar was a real ball buster, and getting laid hasn’t mellowed him out as much as we’d hoped.

“I see. It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, however. You two should make another circuit of the square, and then head over to Cazak and Navat’s position.”

“Copy that. Tyehn out.”

“Damn it, he wants us to do more walking in this frozen rain?”

“Actually, Jalok, despite common belief, snow is not, in fact, frozen rain. That’s a different atmospheric phenomenon. Rather, the water in the atmosphere condenses directly—“

“For fuck’s sake, shut up. We’re not all hydrologists, you know. All I want is a warm heating unit and a cold brew, not to have a science lesson.”

“Suit  yourself.”

I didn’t take Jalok’s complaints personally.

Everyone knows he’s got an attitude. The less generous would say he’s a pain in the ass—another human expression, and this time it made sense.

We walked back out from under the awning under which we’d stood—not that it kept the snow off much anyway, or at least not enough to keep Jalok from complaining.

Our footprints were already half filled before we’d made it a hundred yards. I glanced behind us, seeing a large set and a smaller set trailing behind us.

Nothing else. No one was out in this weather, at least not marching around.

“I wish the anti-alienists were up to no good today. A good fight might actually warm me up some.” Jalok muttered. “Dottie wouldn’t have to find out.” 

I decided to be a bit sympathetic. Jalok wasn’t really a man who’d expected to find his mate on an alien world, if ever.

Learning that she didn’t exactly approve of his more violent tendencies had been a bit of a shock. He’d done well, toning things down, but it had taken a toll on his already rough temper.

“Why don’t we swing by the main avenue after our next sweep? There’s a coffee stand there. We can warm up for a bit and take it to go.”

“Finally, you say something that doesn’t piss me off. Good thinking, for a Valorni.”

I glanced at him askance. “Aren’t you a little bit troubled by the irony of making racist remarks while we’re on patrol for people who are, in fact, racist?”

“More like species-ist, but I get your point. I just don’t give a srell.”

We grew silent, trudging on through the snow for a time with only our muted footfalls and his occasional sneezes to keep us company.

A human woman glared out of a second story apartment at us, her gaze full of suspicion. I smiled and waved at her cheerfully. Her sneer grew by a mile before she jerked her curtains shut.

“Why do you keep trying?”

“Diplomacy is the first recourse, remember? Then de-escalation, and then, finally, if there’s no other alternative, reasonable force.”

“I don’t need a reason to use force. Force is its own reason.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at his gung ho attitude.

Skotan are known to be hot tempered, but Jalok was like a Skotan with a little extra Skotan added in.

We reached the café I’d mentioned, cheerfully lit, warm and inviting. We headed inside and were enveloped by the heat coming from an overhead vent. Jalok paused directly underneath, opening his collar to let the warm air flow into his uniform.

“Hello.” I smiled huge at the human attendant.

Her gaze was as cold as the snow, maybe even colder. I could tell she was considering giving us a hard time for being ‘aliens’ but I pulled my lapel back on the coat to reveal the insignia of Strike Team Three.

That made a huge difference in her service, if not her attitude.  Sure, every alien she’d ever seen was part of the military, one way or another.

But it was one thing to give a hard time to someone who was passing through.

Something else entirely when it was someone stationed here, working with the local guards.

I ordered two coffees.

I couldn’t resist taking a sip right away at the counter, and then carried our cups to the high pub table Jalok had chosen.

He sneered at me and shook his head as I deposited his drink in front of him.

“What’s wrong? I thought you liked this bitter swill.”

“The problem’s not the drink.” He pointed at my face. “It’s the whipped cream on your big honking nose. You look ridiculous.”

“Oh.” I chuckled as I used my tongue to lick the dollop of cream off my nose. “Did I get it?”

“Ugh, yes, you disgusting freak. Next time use a napkin.”

I shrugged and sat down across from him. Technically we were on duty, but a with the snow blanketing the city Kaster is dead as can be. I figured a few minutes sipping drinks to warm both Jalok’s body and his attitude wouldn’t be too gross a dereliction.

“So, how are things going with Dottie?”

Jalok almost smiled—almost.

“Good.” He drank from his cup, not bothering to blow on it cool the liquid.

“Good? That’s all I’m getting out of you?”

“Well, I’m not going to describe our sex life, if that’s what you were wondering.”

It wasn’t what I had been wondering about, but quite frankly I was a bit curious as to what it would be like to sleep with a human woman.

So many of our crew had found their mates, but I still hadn’t seen the attraction.

They were interesting…but nothing had ever sparked inside me when I’d seen one.

“I don’t expect you to give me intimate details, just…what’s it like? Being with a human, I mean. Does she get freaked out by your scales?”

“No.” He took a drink of his coffee and sighed. “Now this is good.”

“I heard Dottie didn’t like you at first.”

Jalok glared at me over his steaming cup.

“Who the hell told you that?”

“I don’t remember, probably Cazak.”

“Figures.”

“They said that when you went berserk during the riots and put all those people in the hospital she was a little spooked, but then you guys became friends.”

“Look, you go ahead and believe what you want. Doesn’t matter to me a lick. Now finish your drink before Sk’lar starts complaining—oh, speak of the devil.”

Our comms lit up, and sure enough Sk’lar demanded to know why we hadn’t returned to our assigned position.

I drained the remains of my drink in one big gulp and hastily followed Jalok back into the snow.

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